US patents hit record 333,530 granted in 2019; IBM, Samsung (not the FAANGs) lead the pack

We may have moved on from a nearly-daily cycle of news involving tech giants sparring in courts over intellectual property infringement, but patents continue to be a major cornerstone of how companies and people measure their progress and create moats around the work that they have done in hopes of building that into profitable enterprises in the future. IFI Claims, a company that tracks patent activity in the US, released its annual tally of IP work today underscoring that theme: it noted that 2019 saw a new high-watermark of 333,530 patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The figures are notable for a few reasons. One is that this is the most patents ever granted in a single year; and the second that this represents a 15% jump on a year before. The high overall number speaks to the enduring interest in safeguarding IP, while the 15% jump has to do with the fact that patent numbers actually dipped last year (down 3.5%) while the number that were filed and still in application form (not granted) was bigger than ever. If we can draw something from that, it might be that filers and the USPTO were both taking a little more time to file and process, not a reduction in the use of patents altogether.

But patents do not tell the whole story in another very important regard.

Namely, the world’s most valuable, and most high profile tech companies are not always the ones that rank the highest in patents filed.

Consider the so-called FAANG group, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google: Facebook is at number-36 (one of the fastest movers but still not top 10) with 989 patents; Apple is at number-seven with 2,490 patents; Amazon is at number-nine with 2,427 patents; Netflix doesn’t make the top 50 at all; and the Android, search and advertising behemoth Google is merely at slot 15 with 2,102 patents (and no special mention for growth).

Indeed, the fact that one of the oldest tech companies, IBM, is also the biggest patent filer almost seems ironic in that regard.

As with previous years — the last 27, to be exact — IBM has continued to hold on to the top spot for patents granted, with 9,262 in total for the year. Samsung Electronics, at 6,469, is a distant second.

These numbers, again, don’t tell the whole story: IFI Claims notes that Samsung ranks number-one when you consider all active patent “families”, which might get filed across a number of divisions (for example a Samsung Electronics subsidiary filing separately) and count the overall number of patents to date (versus those filed this year). In this regard, Samsung stands at 76,638, with IBM the distant number-two at 37,304 patent families.

Part of this can be explained when you consider their businesses: Samsung makes a huge range of consumer and enterprise products. IBM, on the other hand, essentially moved out of the consumer electronics market years ago and these days mostly focuses on enterprise and B2B and far less hardware. That means a much smaller priority placed on that kind of R&D, and subsequent range of families.

Two other areas that are worth tracking are biggest movers and technology trends.

In the first of these, it’s very interesting to see a car company rising to the top. Kia jumped 58 places and is now at number-41 (921 patents) — notable when you think about how cars are the next “hardware” and that we are entering a pretty exciting phase of connected vehicles, self-driving and alternative energy to propel them.

Others rounding out fastest-growing were Hewlett Packard Enterprise, up 28 places to number-48 (794 patents); Facebook, up 22 places to number-36 (989 patents); Micron Technology, up nine places to number-25 (1,268), Huawei, up six places to number-10 (2,418), BOE Technology, up four places to number-13 (2,177), and Microsoft, up three places to number-4 (3,081 patents).

In terms of technology trends, IFI looks over a period of five years, where there is now a strong current of medical and biotechnology innovation running through the list right now, with hybrid plant creation topping the list of trending technology, followed by CRISPR gene-editing technology, and then medicinal preparations (led by cancer therapies). “Tech” in the computer processor sense only starts at number-four with dashboards and other car-related tech; with quantum computing, 3-D printing and flying vehicle tech all also featuring.

Indeed, if you have wondered if we are in a fallow period of innovation in mobile, internet and straight computer technology… look no further than this list to prove out that thought.

Unsurprisingly, US companies account for 49% of U.S. patents granted in 2019 up from 46 percent a year before. Japan accounts for 16% to be the second-largest, with South Korea at 7% (Samsung carrying a big part of that, I’m guessing), and China passing Germany to be at number-four with 5%.

  1. International Business Machines Corp 9262
  2. Samsung Electronics Co Ltd 6469
  3. Canon Inc 3548
  4. Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC 3081
  5. Intel Corp 3020
  6. LG Electronics Inc 2805
  7. Apple Inc 2490
  8. Ford Global Technologies LLC 2468
  9. Amazon Technologies Inc 2427
  10. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd 2418
  11. Qualcomm Inc 2348
  12. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co TSMC Ltd 2331
  13. BOE Technology Group Co Ltd 2177
  14. Sony Corp 2142
  15. Google LLC 2102
  16. Toyota Motor Corp 2034
  17. Samsung Display Co Ltd 1946
  18. General Electric Co 1818
  19. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson AB 1607
  20. Hyundai Motor Co 1504
  21. Panasonic Intellectual Property Management Co Ltd 1387
  22. Boeing Co 1383
  23. Seiko Epson Corp 1345
  24. GM Global Technology Operations LLC 1285
  25. Micron Technology Inc 1268
  26. United Technologies Corp 1252
  27. Mitsubishi Electric Corp 1244
  28. Toshiba Corp 1170
  29. AT&T Intellectual Property I LP 1158
  30. Robert Bosch GmbH 1107
  31. Honda Motor Co Ltd 1080
  32. Denso Corp 1052
  33. Cisco Technology Inc 1050
  34. Halliburton Energy Services Inc 1020
  35. Fujitsu Ltd 1008
  36. Facebook Inc 989
  37. Ricoh Co Ltd 980
  38. Koninklijke Philips NV 973
  39. EMC IP Holding Co LLC 926
  40. NEC Corp 923
  41. Kia Motors Corp 921
  42. Texas Instruments Inc 894
  43. LG Display Co Ltd 865
  44. Oracle International Corp 847
  45. Murata Manufacturing Co Ltd 842
  46. Sharp Corp 819
  47. SK Hynix Inc 798
  48. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP 794
  49. Fujifilm Corp 791
  50. LG Chem Ltd 791

Have we hit peak smartphone?

Last Halloween, we broke down some “good news” from a Canalys report: the smartphone industry saw one-percent year-over-year growth — not exactly the sort of thing that sparks strong consumer confidence.

In short, 2019 sucked for smartphones, as did the year before. After what was nearly an ascendant decade, sales petered off globally with few exceptions. Honestly, there’s no need to cherrypick this stuff; the numbers this year have been lackluster at best for a majority of companies in a majority of markets.

For just the most recent example, let’s turn to a report from Gartner that dropped late last month. The numbers focus specifically on the third quarter, but they’re pretty indicative of what we’ve been seeing from the industry of late, with a 0.4 percent drop in sales. It’s a fairly consistent story, quarter after quarter for a couple of years now.

Samsung acquires TeleWorld Solutions to help build 5G infrastructure

Samsung this morning announced that it has completed the acquisition of TeleWorld Solutions. The Virginia-based telecommunications company provides wireless networking and consulting services. It’s TWS’s 5G solutions that Samsung is clearly the most interested in as part of this deal.

The electronics giant says it plans to leverage TWS’s services to help U.S.-based networks build out the next generation wireless.

“The acquisition of TWS will enable us to meet mobile carriers’ growing needs for improving their 4G and 5G networks, and eventually create new opportunities to enhance our service capabilities to our customers,” Samsung EVP Paul Kyungwhoon Cheun said in a release. “Samsung will continue to drive innovation in communications technology, while providing optimization services for network deployments that accelerate U.S. 5G network expansion.”

The deal will make TWS a wholly owned subsidiary of Samsung, allowing the brand to continue to offer its consulting services to existing clients. That last bit is important, so as to not leave companies in a lurch over the course of the next year, as 5G becomes an increasing focus beyond just smartphone connectivity.

Smasung launches the rugged, enterprise-ready Galaxy XCover Pro

We got a bit of a surprise at the end of CES: some hands-on time with Samsung’s latest rugged phone for the enterprise, the Galaxy XCover Pro. The XCover Pro, which is officially launching today, is a mid-range $499 phone for first-line workers like flight attendants, construction workers or nurses.

It is meant to be very rugged but without the usual bulk that comes with that. With its IP68 rating, Military Standard 810 certification and the promise that it will survive a drop from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) without a case, it should definitely be able to withstand quite a bit of abuse.

While Samsung is aiming this phone at the enterprise market, the company tells us that it will also sell it to individual customers.

As Samsung stressed during our briefing, the phone is meant for all-day use in the field, with a 4,050 mAh replaceable battery (yes, you read that right, you can replace the battery just like on phones from a few years ago). It’ll feature 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space, but you can extend that up to 512GB thanks to the built-in microSD slot. The 6.3-inch FHD+ screen won’t wow you, but it seemed perfectly adequate for most of the use cases. That screen, the company says, should work even in rain or snow and features a glove mode, too.

And while this is obviously not a flagship phone, Samsung still decided to give it a dual rear camera setup, with a standard 25MP sensor and a wide-angle 8MP sensor for those times where you might want to get the full view of a construction site, for example. On the front, there is a small cutout for a 13MP camera, too.

All of this is powered by a 2GHz octa-core Exynos 9611 processor, as one would expect from a Samsung mid-range phone, as well as Android 10.

Traditionally, rugged phones came with large rubber edges (or users decided to put even larger cases around them). The XCover Pro, on the other hand, feels slimmer than most regular phones with a rugged case on them.

By default, the phone features NFC support for contactless payments (the phone has been approved to be part of Visa’s Tap to Phone pilot program) and two programmable buttons so that companies can customize their phones for their specific use cases. One of the first partners here is Microsoft, which lets you map a button to its recently announced walkie talkie feature in Microsoft Teams.

“Microsoft and Samsung have a deep history of bringing together the best hardware and software to help solve our customers’ challenges,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in today’s announcement. “The powerful combination of Microsoft Teams and the new Galaxy XCover Pro builds on this partnership and will provide frontline workers everywhere with the technology they need to be more collaborative, productive and secure.”

With its Pogo pin charging support and compatibility with third-party tools from a variety of partners for adding scanners, credit card readers and other peripherals from partners like Infinite Peripherals, KOAMTAC, Scandit and Visa.

No enterprise device is complete without security features and the XCover Pro obviously supports all of Samsungs various Knox enterprise security tools and access to the phone itself is controlled by both a facial recognition system and a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button.

With the Tab Active Pro, Samsung has long offered a rugged tablet for first-line workers. Not everybody needs a full-sized tablet, though, so the XCover Pro fills what Samsung clearly believes is a gap in the market that offers always-on connectivity in a smaller package and in the form of a phone that doesn’t look unlike a consumer device.

I could actually imagine that there are quite a few consumers who may opt for this device. For a while, the company made phones like the Galaxy S8 Active that traded weight and size for larger batteries and ruggedness. the XCover Pro isn’t officially a replacement of this program, but it may just find its fans among former Galaxy Active users.

Samsung’s Lite devices bring the headphone jack to flagship design (sort of)

Some devices need no explanation. The Galaxy S10 Lite and Note 10 Lite are no such devices. They’re more nebulous, walking an interesting line, between premium and mid-range. They’re a clear attempt by Samsung to change with a smartphone-buying public that has balked at the idea of $1,000+ devices.

On that front, they make plenty of sense. Things are, however, not so cut and dry. This is probably no better exemplified by the headphone jack situation. One (the Note 10) has one. One (the S10) doesn’t. It’s a bit of a one foot in, one foot out approach to the technology that Samsung, admittedly, has always been more cautious about abandoning than most.

The pragmatic reason for the decision, I think, is that the Note 10 Lite is the thicker of the two devices. Both feel like solid, flagship devices. The build quality is terrific on both. The Note, however, is noticeably chunkier, owing to the inclusion of the S Pen and a different screen technology. So Samsung saw an opportunity to have it both ways, plopping a headphone jack on the bottom.

The timing is interesting, as well. The company snuck out an announcement just ahead of CES. That both firmly missed the holiday season, while arriving about a month and a half ahead of its latest big phone reveal (the invitations for Unpacked went out the following day). There was also no pricing — and there still isn’t here in the States. That leaves open the question of where they slot in.

Are we talking slightly below the flagship tier? Or is this Samsung’s new vision for mid-tier? European pricing gives us a hint. At €599, that’s pretty significantly below the lowest-tier version of its flagship counterparts. It’s also a pretty decent direction below the Galaxy S10e. It will be interesting to see if that model sticks around for the S11.

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A closer look at Ballie, Samsung’s friendly robotic ball

Okay, I’ve slept on it. I was skeptical at first, but after a good night’s sleep, let’s do this. I want a Ballie. All of the people and the pets in the below video seemed super into it. Where do I sign up?

Okay, let me back up a second. I’d like a little hands-on time with the robotic ball first. Or at the very least a more in-depth demo. But once we’ve gotten those out of the way, yeah, totally. Let’s do this. I want my own BB8. I’ve just seen enough of these home robots come and go to be super skeptical about the plausibility of such a product both coming to market and functioning as advertised.

Even the latest version of Aibo, which is extremely impressive as far as home robotics go, still feels like a lot of unfulfilled potential at a prohibitively steep price. That’s in spite of tremendous resources, multiple generations and years of iteration. It’s been an incredibly tough nut to crack, and the road to success (whatever that will ultimately mean) is paved with the bodies of adorable robotic companions that died long before the their time.

It’s not so much a lack of interest. Who watches a video like that and doesn’t think Ballie would be a fun addition? I would, however, argue that such products deliver unrealistic expectations about what such a product would ultimately look like and how it would ultimately function in a home setting.

Baby steps. Bringing that long-promised Bixby smart speaker to market early this year is a good place to start. Next step is a designating a handful of functionalities best served by a roaming robotic ball (security, reminders, package delivery alerts) and building those in. Then deliver a device that can function consistently at a realistic price point. I’m here for it, Ballie.

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Samsung’s knife-wielding robotic chef is all flash

Last year, we asked whether Samsung was getting serious about robotics. A year later, we’re not any closer to answering the question. This year’s presser played out roughly the same as last on the robotics front — all flash and little productizing to show for it.

Samsung’s approach to robotics thus far appears to be the model of many other big electronics companies. It’s flirtation with a technology that brings some sense of showmanship to the stage and booth. There’s no better example than Bot Chef. I got a preview of the tech in Samsung’s booth this week, pitched as “an extra set of hands in the kitchen.”

You can’t fault the technology for not being ready for prime time, at this point, of course. That’s not really the point yet. The question, however, is how serious Samsung is about bringing a pair of robot arms to kitchens across the globe to sauté tofu and liberally apply Sriracha. I would love to say “very,” and that the different demos were things the company was actively pursuing delivering on these products.

The futuristic theme of last night’s keynote, however, implied that the company is offering up hypotheticals for what a future could look like — not what it will. Even Ballie, which seems a more realistic addition to the company’s smart home strategy is also still very much conceptual. As with last year’s robot demos, I wasn’t able to get an answer from the company about how much of the robot’s functions were autonomous and how much were choreographed. It’s a cool demo regardless. But is it a serious one?

At the end of the day, I hope Samsung is getting serious about the category. The company has tremendous resources and a lot of smart people. If it really takes the leap, it could be a key player in making robotics more mainstream among consumers. For now, however, I’m unconvinced.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

PopSockets launches a $60 wireless charger that works with its PopGrips

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Popsockets is launching a new must-have item to its lineup of smartphone accessories — and one that solves a significant problem for PopGrip users. The company today is unveiling the PopPower Home wireless charger that allows you to wirelessly charge your supported Apple or Android smartphone by making room for the PopGrip on the back of your phone by way of a hole in the middle of the charging pad.

This design allows the mobile device to sit flush with the charging pad so it can wirelessly charge — something that hasn’t been possible with standard wireless chargers. Instead, PopGrips users would either have to remove their phone case (or swappable PopGrip) to take advantage of wireless charging, or they’d have to forgo it altogether and instead opt to charge their phone with a power cord, as usual.

The new PopPower Home charger will also work through phone cases up to 5 mm thick and can charge devices that don’t have a PopGrip on the back, like other phones or the AirPods with Apple’s Wireless Charging Case – even if it’s protected by one of the AirPods case covers that PopSockets sells.

The new charger, powered by Nucurrent, features Qi certification wit Extended Power Profile (EPP) to deliver up to 15 watts of wireless power for fast-charging wireless mobile devices. (Many other chargers are 5 to 10 watts, for comparison’s sake.) Brand/model, case thickness and battery depletion will affect the charge times, PopSockets says.

 

At launch, the PopPower Home supports both Apple and Samsung’s Fast Wireless charging modes. (Popsockets tells us Pixel phones that support wireless charging will also be supported.)

Using the case is as simple as plugging it in, then placing your phone or another device on top, making sure the PopGrip slides down into the hole in the middle. An LED indicator on the side will subtly alert you that the case is charging.

Like PopGrips themselves, the case comes in an array of designs, including Night Bloom, Mountainscape, Matte White, Cosmic Cloud, and Carbonate Gray.

Unfortunately, the case only works with standard PopGrips, and excludes metal grips, PopGrip Mirror, and PopGrip Lips.

PopPower Home is available today exclusively on Popsockets.com for $60. That’s pricier than many of today’s wireless chargers, which tend to be $20 or less. But for dedicated PopGrips users, it’s worth it for the convenience of just being able to lay your phone down to charge.

At launch, only three styles are available, but the others will arrive in late January.

It’s not currently being sold as a bundle, but will arrive on Amazon later this year — possibly as soon as February.

Despite the price, the new product will likely do well because of PopSockets’ large, existing customer base. To date, the company has sold 165 million PopSockets, it says.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Samsung hints at AR ambitions, shows off prototype glasses

What a weird Samsung press conference. The company didn’t waste time on the familiar. Things like Galaxy phones and washing machines got little love on stage tonight. Instead the company was focused on a workout exoskeleton and a friendly robotic call assistant.

And then there’s was AR. The technology was more hinted at than outright explained. First it took part in the aforementioned GEMS workout, in which the wearer took out her pair of “Samsung AR glasses.” That demo involved an AR assistant that was, admittedly fairly creepy.

The subject was dropped a bit, only to come back to it a little while later. First there was am uplifting video featuring Gear VR headsets repurposed to help vision impaired users see their loved ones (definite tear jerker material), followed by what appeared to be a different take on the AR glasses, complete with a camera in the middle of the frames.

Of course, we need to use the same caution here that we have with all of the other strange stuff shown off on stage tonight: this is all that prototypes. At best, it’s a potential roadmap. At worst, it’s speculative fiction. Either way, I wouldn’t wager a good deal of money on the the company replacing Gear VR with a pair of AR sunglasses this year.

That said, given larger industry trends, it’s completely understandable why the company is exploring such potential paths.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Samsung’s GEMS exoskeleton is now an ‘immersive workout experience’

Remember the G.E.M.S. (Gait Enhancing and Motivation System) exoskeleton Samsung introduced last year? Plot-twist. It’s a workout device now. One of the weirdest elements of a super weird keynotes was actually a fascinating pivot.

I wore a prototype of the device lates year, which offered both walking assistance and resistance. The latter is what’s at play here, with the robotic wearing giving you increasingly difficult workouts.

That pairs with AR glasses and a handset, giving you a creepy ass AR workout instructor Like Ballie before it — not to mention all of the different Samsung robotic offerings — the exoskeleton is still very early stages. Keep in mind, the theme of the night was “Age of Experience,” meaning that basically everything we saw tonight was conceptual. 

In Samsung’s defense, this application could provide a clearer revenue path. There are already a number of companies vying for the assistive wearable exoskeleton category. Samsung is potentially going after an even larger portion of the population, essentially serving as an at-home gym. Though if and when such a device does come to market, it’s likely going to be a lot more than a monthly gym subscription.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch